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Pregnancy and Prisons: Women's Health and Rights Behind Bars

Image by daquella manera

Do all pregnant women deserve equal human rights, or do pregnant women in prison forfeit those rights?

There are a few questions that come to mind regarding a pregnant woman's right to live and to raise her child when she has been convicted for some sort of crime:

  • What is it like for them to be pregnant and have their child behind bars?
  • Should they be a priority when there are other women outside of correctional facilities without medical assistance?
  • Should maternity overrule any other legal conditions to ensure a pregnant woman's human rights?

USA: women in labor no longer to be shackled.

Could you imagine a woman giving childbirth with her hands in handcuffs and her feet shackled to the bedposts? Malika Saada Saar, founder and executive director of the Rebecca Project for Human Rights, tells us about this practice which still happens in the United States of America, where pregnant women serving time have been routinely shackled during labor and childbirth as a common practice in some correctional facilities, even though it is dangerous for the health of both mother and child. Following is a video interview included in the same article written for RH Reality Check, an online community on sexual and reproductive health and rights which does information and analysis for reproductive health:

What happens to an inmate's baby after childbirth?

Different countries have different regulations regarding children in prisons. For example, in Argentina, according to Ajintem, an information portal for migration information, a law was passed last year specifying that pregnant women, women with children younger than 5 and those with handicapped children would benefit from spending their prison term at home under house arrest. This law would benefit not only the mother, who in prison wouldn't receive suitable health care during her pregnancy, but also the child, who would either be raised in an unsafe environment deprived of freedom with deficient health controls and food, or be raised away from the mother, causing another series of problems. However, the message is for magistrates to follow the spirit of the law and grant this permission to those women not involved in violent crimes, to ensure that the rest of the civilian population doesn't see pregnancy as a get out of jail free card.

In the Canary Islands, according to the Prisiones y Penas blog, which writes about the issues surrounding jails and prisons, women are allowed to keep their children of up to 3 years of age with them in their cells, but in the company of other inmates, which isn't the best environment. Thus, pregnant women or women with children under 3 are told upon entry to the prison that it isn't good for the child to grow up behind bars, and options are given for them to send the child off to family members. This is also the case in Peru and Russia. In the US, there are only two correctional facilities which allow for this, in New York and in Nebraska, as told by renowned photographer Jane Evelyn Atwood in her 3 part photo documentary for Amnesty International, called Too Much Time, where she visited dozens of prisons all over the world to record and document the lives of inmates.

Why does the US correctional system not generally allow women with babies to keep them? Atwood explains that due to the hostage situation, it is not allowed. In the Prison Photography Blog they address this claim:

Children are excluded from all but a couple of US prisons. The security threat is cited as the reason: a child inside a prison is a constant vulnerable life and constant hostage target. The claim seems a little bogus when penal systems of other countries are brought into consideration.

The Atwood documentary in the Amnesty International site features both a section on the process of giving birth in shackless as told in Vanessa's Baby and another on prison systems and motherhood, with fotographs of the women while the photographer reads an essay on her experiences visiting the prisons and taking the pictures.

Pregnancy as a bargaining tool?

Why are rights for pregnant women in prison so controversial? In Russia Today, a Russian broadcasting channel, the subject is mentioned when discussing children born and raised in the Russian correctional system:

Skeptics think some mothers deliberately get pregnant simply to ease life in prison. Hospital leave, then lots of scheduled time with your child – it is all better than sitting in a stone cell, they claim.

And there are women for whom it seems that pregnancy is the only way to escape a sentence, as was the case back in June, when a British woman incarcerated and sentenced to death in Laos due to drug smuggling got pregnant in prison and escaped being executed, since the Laos government would not execute a pregnant woman. The claims made according to the Daily Express, a British newspaper, are that she got artificially inseminated “to secure a more lenient term”.

In their words: Women tell of their children and prison life

Geraldin Rodríguez, an Argentinean spending time in an Ecuadorian jail due to drug trafficking tells Marcos Brugiati, a writer who contributes with the art related online publication Plastica-Argentina, the story about acting and performing in jail, getting pregnant in prison and having her child. She was allowed to keep her baby with her, but decided that the child needed to grow up free:

“Decidí que salga para vivir, tenía miedo que sufra de grande los traumas que hoy tengo. Se lo llevó al año mi hermano quien se hice cargo con su esposa”.

I decided he should leave to live, I was afraid he would suffer the same traumas I have today. After a year my brother took him away and is caring for him along with his wife.

Juvinete is in a Spanish prison, and was pregnant when she was incarcerated for drug trafficking. She tells her story to regional Spanish newspaper NorteCastilla. Three years after giving birth to her baby in prison, her child had to leave her side, and was sent to a foster family. Juvinete sees her daughter every 15 days and every two months she gets a 2 week leave to spend time with her. However, things don't seem to be looking up: there is a chance Juvinete will be deported to her natal Brazil, and she fears for the consequences this change would have on her child. She does have advice for any woman who decide to get pregnant while in jail:

-Intento convencerlas para que no se queden en estado dentro porque ver a un niño privado de libertad es muy duro, es irresponsable. Ellos no tienen que pagar nuestros errores.

I try to convince them not to get pregnant while inside because seeing a child deprived of their freedom is very hard, it's irresponsible. They don't have to pay for our mistakes.

In Woman and Prison, a website dedicated to visibilizing women's experiences in the correctional system, inmate Kebby Warner speaks of her own pregnancy while doing time in a US prison, and how she was treated during her pregnancy, labor and afterwards, when her child was taken away from her. Here is an excerpt where she writes about the birthing process:

During the labor, no one is allowed in the delivery room. My family didn't even know I was in labor or had her until after I left the hospital. During the three days some of the guards stayed in the room, but most of the time, when the nurses asked them to sit outside the door, they complied. I have heard horror stories of women being chained to the delivery bed. I am so grateful as to have not experienced this. Most of the nurses treated me as a human instead of a prisoner.

You can read more testimonies about growing up with a parent in prison and the different effects incarcerating women may have on their children in Women and Prison.

So what do you think? With pregnant women around the world not receiving health care of any sort, should additional efforts be made to benefit women who are in prison? Is there a difference between mothers serving terms in correctional facilities and those outside? Should they be treated differently?


Image used to illustrate post is “17 de noviembre” by daquella manera.

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